Contemporary circus

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Contemporary circus, or nouveau cirque (as it was originally known in French-speaking countries), is a genre of performing art developed in the later 20th century in which a story or a theme is conveyed through traditional circus skills. Animals are rarely used in this type of circus, and traditional circus skills are blended with a more character-driven approach. Compared with the traditional circuses of the past, the contemporary approach tends to focus more attention on the overall aesthetic impact, on character and story development, and on the use of lighting design, original music, and costume design to convey thematic or narrative content.

Although the literal English translation of nouveau cirque is "new circus", the term contemporary circus is generally preferred.


Cirque du Soleil performing Dralion in Vienna, 2004

The nouveau cirque movement originated in the 1970s in France, Australia, the West Coast of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Early examples of nouveau cirque companies include: Royal Lichtenstein Circus, founded in San Jose, CA in 1970; Circus Oz, forged in Australia in 1977 from SoapBox Circus and New Circus, both founded in the early 1970s; the Pickle Family Circus, founded in San Francisco in 1975; Ra-Ra Zoo in 1984 in London; Nofit State Circus in 1984 from Wales; Cirque du Soleil, founded in Quebec in 1984; Cirque Plume and Archaos from France in 1984 and 1986 respectively.

More recent examples include: Cirque Éloize, founded in Quebec (1993); Arizona's Flam Chen (1994); New York's Bindlestiff Family Cirkus (1995); Sweden's Cirkus Cirkör (1995); Teatro ZinZanni, founded in Seattle (1998); the West African Circus Baobab (late 1990s);[1] Montreal's Les 7 doigts de la main founded in 2002, San Francisco's Vau De Vire Society;[2] Wanderlust Circus from Portland, OR;[3] Australia's Circa (2004);,[4] Asheville's Fox & Beggar Theater and American cirque noir companies Lucent Dossier Experience, PURE Cirkus (2004),[5] and the Red Light Variety Show of Boise, Idaho (2008).[6]

The genre includes other circus troupes such as the Vermont-based Circus Smirkus (founded in 1987 by Rob Mermin), Le Cirque Imaginaire (later renamed Le Cirque Invisible, both founded and directed by Victoria Chaplin, daughter of Charlie Chaplin), the Tiger Lillies, and Dislocate,[7] while The Jim Rose Circus is an interesting take on the circus sideshow. In Northern England, Skewed Circus combines punk, rap, dance music, comedy, and stunts to deliver "pop-circus" entertainment to young urban audiences.[8]

It could be argued that the blending of traditional circus arts with contemporary aesthetic sensibilities and theatrical techniques has revitalized the general public's interest in and appetite for the circus. Certainly the most conspicuous success story has been that of Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian circus company whose estimated annual revenue now exceeds US$810 million,[9] and whose nouveau cirque shows have been seen by nearly 90 million spectators in over 200 cities on five continents.[10]


Contemporary circus combines traditional circus skills and theatrical techniques to convey a story or theme. Such acts may include acrobatics, juggling, trapeze, acting, music and aerial silk. For aesthetic or economic reasons, contemporary circus productions may be staged in theaters rather than in large outdoor tents. Music used in the production is often composed exclusively for that production, and aesthetic influences are drawn as much from contemporary culture as from circus history. Animal acts appear less frequently in contemporary circus than in traditional circus. Theatrical scenes or clown gags may provide seamless segues between acts, replacing the traditional role of the ringmaster.

Below is a table comparing several aspects of traditional and contemporary circus performances.

Traditional circus Contemporary circus
Typically performed by Circus families Conservatory or self-trained artists
Typical staging format Tiered seating around an oval or circular arena called a ring, under a large tent called the big top Auditorium seating in front of proscenium stage, although some companies perform in the round and/or under a tent
Typical production format Series of spectacle-oriented acts presided over by a ringmaster, who has a role similar to a master of ceremonies Series of theatrical, character-driven acts tied together by a central narrative or theme
Typical music Uptempo marches, waltzes, etc. Music's purpose is to raise the energy level and create a sense of spectacle. A variety of genres and moods. Music also assists in dramatizing the show's themes, characters, and/or narrative.

"Extreme circus" is a high-energy, street-inspired genre of contemporary circus whose aesthetic is more free-form and improvisational; its music may encompass hip hop, virtuosic percussion and beat-boxing.[11]

Festivals of contemporary circus[edit]



Czech Republic[edit]














  • Sibiu - theatre and circus




United States[edit]


There is also a variety of circus arts available at large performing arts festivals like Edinburgh Fringe, Brighton, and Helsinki.

See also[edit]